Philippines: Militant workers demand `big-time rollback' of labour export policy

By Partido ng Manggagawa (Labor Party Philippines)

October 27, 2008 -- The militant Partido ng Manggagawa (PM) called for a historic reversal of the strategy of labour export as the government-sponsored Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) opened its first day.

"A one-time, big-time rollback of the failed policy of labour export is just as urgent and necessary as the bloated prices of oil. It is time to think out of the box and shift to domestic full employment instead of promoting overseas employment", declared Renato Magtubo, PM chairperson at a big rally led by Solidarity Action of labour Against GFMD (SALAG).

PM opposes the GFMD since it alleges that the main problem it is trying to solve is how to profit from remittances not how to protect migrants. "It would have been funny if it were not tragic that the GFMD is steadfastly fascinated with the neoliberal agenda even though the bankruptcy of globalisation has been exposed by the financial meltdown and economic recession in the US and the world", Magtubo asserted.

He added: "Furthermore, the GFMD had allotted more seats for big businesses with interests in the remittances of migrant workers compared to labour groups with an advocacy for migrant issues."

A thousand members of PM, including members of the Fortune Tobacco Labour Union and unions from Valenzuela City, participated in the big mobilisation. About a hundred representatives of labour centres of other countries and global union groups like the ICEM, BWI, IMF, EI, UNI, PSI, ITGLWF, ITF, IUF and the ITUC headed the rally together with local labour leaders and migrants' advocates.

According to Judy Ann Miranda, secretary-general of PM, "Today organised labour in the Philippines and in the world have linked [their] arms in solidarity with the cause of migrant workers who are predominantly unorganised and largely unprotected. The formation of SALAG and the mobilisation of global unions is a first step in establishing a global movement of workers and global unions that transcends borders, which is a key tactic in promoting migrant workers rights and welfare worldwide."

PM supports the SALAG and global union demands for an end to the policy of promoting overseas employment; a stop to the deregulation of the labour export industry; and decent work and pay, and the right to organise and bargain for all migrant workers.

Women members of PM joined women-led rally ob October 28 to again protest the GFMD.

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For a paradigm shift away from labour export to domestic employment. For a global movement of workers to protect migrant rights and welfare

A funny thing happened on the way to the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). While the excesses and essence of globalisation has been exposed with the unraveling of the financial meltdown and economic recession in the US that threatens to go global, the framework of the GFMD remains firmly in the grip of the neoliberal agenda.

The Partido ng Manggagawa (Labor Party) as the independent political party of the working class in the Philippines opposes the GFMD, for its framework on migrant workers is "economic development" not human rights. Behind its stated goals of "maximising remittances and the benefits of migration" is the opportunist attitude that migrant workers are commodities for sale not humans with rights. Among its participants is a preponderance of big businesses with interests in the remittances of migrant workers.

Just last week a Filipino worker in Saudi Arabia was killed by beheading while another Filipino migrant is scheduled for a similar fate. What can the GFMD do to save migrants workers? The main problem it is trying to solve is how to profit from remittances, not how to protect migrants.

It is not an exaggeration to say that labour migration today is the modern-day form of slavery. Five hundred years ago the age of mercantilism saw the heyday in the trade of human slaves. In the era of globalisation, millions of workers cross borders in search of greener pastures or simply to survive in the face of joblessness and destitution in their home countries.

The pull of a substantial wage differential between the sending and receiving country is enough incentive for massive labour migration. That has of course resulted in significant transfers of wealth and token alleviation of poverty in the home countries. Yet the fact that millions of migrants are involved and the reality of lack of protection for basic workers' rights and respect for labour standards results in so many victims of abuse.

In the Philippines, no reliable data exists but it is common knowledge that migrant workers fall prey to excessive fees from labour contractors and employment agencies. Once abroad, many are underpaid or not paid their salaries at all. Some are forced to work 50- to 80-hour workweeks and usually without overtime pay. There are many abusive employers and some workers labour under unsafe conditions. Contracts are breached and migrant workers are without recourse for redress. In the worst cases, workers end up as bonded labour or sex slaves, if not incarcerated despite being innocent or dying in unsolved murders.

In many receiving countries, basic labour rights and standards are not respected and implemented. Even in advanced countries where there are formal guarantees of workers' rights, baiting of immigrants and restrictive immigration policies lead to the proliferation of so-called ``illegals''. As illegal immigrants, they are without the protection of the law and thus easily victimised. Moreover they are hunted by the governments of host countries and if caught deported home with their dreams broken.

It is a glaring contradiction that in the era of globalisation, goods, capital and information flow freely across the world and yet the free movement of labour is restricted. Trade in goods and capital flows are fully liberalised through multilateral agreements but labour migration is highly regulated through unilateral actions. This is one fundamental aspect of the grave inequalities and double standards under globalisation.

The fact is neoliberal capitalist globalisation is the key link in the flood of labour migration in recent times. There are an estimated 150 million migrants and immigrants around the world. Meaning 2.5% of the global population had to cross borders and oceans just to find their daily bread. In 2005, their combined remittances amount to $167 billion and could reach up to a quarter of a billion dollars if those sent through informal means are counted.

Around 10% of Filipinos, almost 9 million out of a population of 80 million, are living or working abroad. Undocumented migrants and immigrants will bloat this figure further. About half are contractual workers, now called overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), principally found in Saudi Arabia, Japan, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan. The other half has emigrated mainly to advanced countries like the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and the UK. In some families, there are already two generations of migrant workers with the next on the path of becoming the new batch of OFWs.

More than $14 billion in remittances were sent to the Philippines in 2007 alone or above $1 billion per month. The figure would rise by an estimated 50% if money sent through informal channels were included. Just the official figure of $14 billion in remittances already constitutes 10% of GNP. That amount exceeds both official development aid and foreign direct investment received by the Philippines. Without the influx of dollar remittances, the country's current account would be negative.

The growth of remittances has been explosive, commensurate to the number of migrants and immigrants. Back in 1993, about half a million OFWs were deployed while the remittances were worth just $2.5 billion. Yet even then this was considerable since it already equalled half of the foreign debt service.

The Philippines government actively promotes labour migration. In fact, the export of labour is part of the yearly target for employment creation. About a million migrant workers are deployed yearly. Everyday almost 3000 Filipinos leave to work abroad.

The number of women migrant workers has been increasing and in 2007 they constituted half of new hires. Many are domestic helpers like in Hong Kong, entertainers like in Japan, and nurses like in the US. The feminisation of labour migration and the lack of protection for migrant workers have led to rising cases of abuse, harassment and rape.

While the pull factor in labour migration is mainly the wage differential — a fact that existed even before globalisation — the push factor is principally the deepening poverty and worsening unemployment brought about by near universal enforcement of neoliberal policies worldwide. The policies of liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation have led to the collapse of local industry and agriculture. Together with policies of cheap labour, labour flexibility and others associated with globalisation, workers are encouraged if not forced to look for work abroad despite all the dangers, hardships and costs.

Still labour migration is a right that workers must enjoy in a globalised world. Even more than goods and capital, labour must be able to move freely across the world. Labour must be mobile in order to seek better wages and working conditions.

We insist on internationally enforceable rights and standards for all migrant workers. All internationally recognised basic labour rights and standards — as enshrined in the ILO conventions including the right to organise, bargain and strike — must be extended to all migrant workers wherever their host country. The freedom to migrate should be a guaranteed right and discriminatory immigration polices must be cease.

A key element of the promotion of migrant workers' rights and welfare worldwide is the establishment of a global movement of workers and global unions that transcends borders, race, gender and nationality. This is the challenge that the international labour movement must face squarely.

We call for an end to the promotion of overseas employment. The decades-long policy of labour export has not redounded to national development and instead has resulted in grave social costs and has exacerbated the collapse of local industry and agriculture. As a means of job generation, it has become a sorry excuse for government to abandon the goals of full employment and local industrialisation.

We demand a stop to the deregulation of labour export. While government has promoted labour export, it has left migrant workers at the mercy of the scams of private manpower agencies and the whims of host country regimes. The exploitation for profit of labour export and the train of abuses it necessarily entails must halt.

Decades of promoting overseas employment has not led to social progress in the Philippines and other labour-exporting countries. In fact from a long-term perspective, the social costs and the brain drain may offset whatever economic benefits accrue from labour migration.

The policy of labour export promotion must be reversed and instead governments must ensure full employment in their countries. Such a policy change can only be realised as part of a paradigm shift away from neoliberal capitalist globalisation. Without falling into the trap of autarky, the domestic economy must be strengthened so that local industry and agriculture can generate decent jobs and a living wage for all the people.